Ecclesia of Women in Asia

Forum of Asian Catholic Women Theologians

With the aid of Foucault’s theory of power, Agnes Brazal’s essay proposes a feminist re-articulation of mission as mutual empowerment of dungan. Dungan signifies both strength of character (being at home with one’s self/body) and capacity to influence others to act. In the Philippine context, this power in mutual relation, if it has to be culturally grounded “has to strive to translate the magic of big men into the magic of communities of resistance and solidarity.”

by Agnes Brazal

Mission, in the past, has generally been viewed as a uni-directional task, the transmission of “saving” or “sacred power” by Christians to pagans. Mission consisted in planting the Church which possessed the “power to save” in new territories. The link between this concept of mission and the colonial enterprise resulted in many cases to violence and destruction of cultures and identities of peoples. Certain shifts, however, have occurred in the Catholic Church’s concept of mission since Vatican II We now speak of the whole Church, and not just the Western Church as missionary. The Church has begun to stress the notion of mission as dialogue with new situations relating to local cultures, world religions, oppressed peoples and the natural environment.

This paper hopes to contribute towards this trajectory by re-articulating mission as mutual empowerment, starting from a dialogue between Michel Foucault’s insights on power and indigenous Philippine cultural perspectives. [1]

1. Mission as Power Encounters

Power in Foucault’s analysis, is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. This means that power relations reflect interest of various groups and intermesh with other forms of relations (such as production, kinship, family, sexuality, etc.), where they play both a conditioning and conditioned role.[2] Against the Marxist economistic conception of power, Foucault does not see power as simply an instrument of class domination or confined to its role in maintaining the relations of production. Power for him is primarily a relation of force and a natural element in any undertaking. Power runs through everything as “something that has an effect, that effectuates.”[3]

Even the production of knowledge is not exempt from the effects of power. Power produces certain forms of knowledge to support or subjugate particular social groups. Following Friedrich Nietszhe, Foucault views knowledge and truth as products of struggles even as these are usually presented by dominant groups as eternal and universal.[4]

But power can also be productive of resistance to domination. In the colonial era, the missionary enterprise was tied up with the colonial powers. Foucault’s analytics of power, however, would not lead us to focus solely on the colonizers’ domination of the colonized. According to Foucault, “Power is exercised in a “net-like organization” where “individuals are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising their power. They are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation.”[5]

1.1. Mission and Pre-colonial Concepts of Power: A Genealogy[6]

The Philippine islanders faced by the Spaniards in the late 16th century lived in a world animated by ancestral and environmental spirits with whom they try to live harmoniously. The indigenous world was suffused by power struggles between the spirits. In a similar way, even relationship among the natives themselves are viewed as power encounters,[7] a sizing up of each other’s dungan or soul-double. Dungan refers to life-force, character (e.g. willpower), as well as, to an autonomous spirit residing in the body (an alter ego, “double” or soul stuff).[8] Dungan does not simply refer to strength of character, but is in essence independent of this.[9] Dungan is a combination of both strength of character and power as capacity to influence others to act towards a certain direction.

Present-day shamans continue to believe that everyone is born with a dungan. A dungan must feel at home in the body for the host person to experience satisfactory well-being. In such a state, the person is said to possess “intelligence”, “good sense”, “good health”, “strong will” and ability to influence/dominate others”. If the dungan does not feel at home in its habitat, it can be led by the spirits to get out of the person’s body, roam around and be held in captivity. The loss of the soul-double leads to prolonged illness or even death of the host person.[10]

The dungan traditionally functions as an idiom to describe relative power of adults in all social strata. It is believed that a person possessing a stronger dungan can overpower and willingly cause another person with weaker dungan to get ill. This can be achieved through words or touch that can have the effect of sapping energy or a desired trait from the other. The strength of a person’s dungan is also linked to a person’s capacity to relate to the spirit-world. The datus (the native political leader) and the native shamans (baylans) are persons with dungan strength because of their capacity to negotiate with the spirits.

In their mission work, the friars, in competition with the baylans (usually women but a few effeminate men), projected themselves as alternative shamans. Like the native rites, the Catholic sacraments functioned as means of healing and interceding with the spiritual sphere. They provided another way for the natives to cope with sickness, death and other life issues. The friars directly challenged indigenous beliefs by breaking taboos like felling a balite tree, considered by natives as living temples because they are the abode of spirit-beings. With no apparent evil happening to them, the friars and their Christian spirit-guides (saints, angels) were perceived by the natives as possessing a powerful dungan.

1.1.1. Subjugation of the Baylan

In the Philippines as in the rest of Southeast Asia, sexual fertility is also connected with magical power and strength. Impotence can signify political chaos.[11] The baylans were for the friars not simply religious rivals but women whose sexual freedom and power should be subjugated both by Spanish and native male authority.[12] Through the labeling of native religious beliefs as abusos or supersticiones, and using this as guide for confession, the priests were able to locate the baylans and their followers.[13]

While many male native chiefs and the baylans became symbols of defiance to the new religion, other chiefs were converted and assimilated as local representatives of the colonial government. The baylans, together with other native women, were marginalized to the domestic domain in the image of the ideal woman of 16th century Mediterranean Spain. Gradually, even in the indigenous religions, the women baylans were replaced by males.

For Foucault, knowledge, which is a product of historical struggles, constructs the subjects who understand themselves by referring back to this body of knowledge. With the denigration of native beliefs through the construct “paganism”, the natives began to believe that their dungan - soul-stuff, character, power – was weaker. This interiorization of inferiority was further reinforced through the centuries by racist remarks from both Catholic and Protestant missionaries themselves.

The alienation of the natives from themselves and the indigenous world of meaning appeared in the native imagination in the form of the dungan wandering, enticed by foreign spirit-beings like the ingkantu, who possesses Caucasian features. The Filipinos’ collective dungan (soul) from then on, seems to have straddled between two spirit-worlds, Christianity and that of the indigenous religion, not quite knowing its home.[14]

1.1.2. Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges: Indigenous Concepts of Power and the Resistance

In the view of power as a relation of force, one is never totally dominated. Realizing the greater power of the Spanish friars and their spirit-beings, the natives tapped into what they perceived as sources of colonial power.

Libritos: In the Philippines, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, power was believed to permeate everything in the universe like stones, trees, clouds, fire.[15] This power, however, can be concentrated in talismans which have absorbed energy from the cosmos. The more talisman a person has, the more powerful he or she becomes.

During the Spanish colonization, the natives who were straddling between Christianity and the pre-Spanish native religion, produced the first libritos. These small prayerbooks were in Latin, which the natives believed had power to persuade the ingkantu (Spanish spirits) to heal, give a good harvest, bring luck or restore a wandering soul. Shamans wore the libritos around their neck or carried them as amulets, deriving a sense of invincibility that ironically, encouraged the revolts and uprisings against the Spanish colonizers in the 19th century.

Pasyon: Loob and Power. Another element in the folk Filipino’s concept of power (shared with the Javanese) is the belief in the continuity between the state of a person’s inner being (loob) and his/her power to control the environment and shape the outcome of political phenomena. Even a leader’s capacity to absorb power from the amulets depends on the quality of his or her loob. An amulet can be effective only to the extent that the one possessing it has undergone renewal and purification through ascetic practices, prayer and rituals and self-discipline.[16]

In the 19th century, through the ritual singing of the Pasyon during Holy Week rrse form of the salvation hisoty), the revolutionaries began to link more the powers of Christ to his “beautiful loob” which is not only pure and controlled but attracts others in its graciousness. As powerful talismans are believed to emit light and make their possessors radiant,[17] Christ himself has been described in the Pasyon as radiating with light. [18] Only a person with a “beautiful loob that attracts others” can be a light to others. A “beautiful loob” includes following the straight path and exhibiting compassion. [19] Here we see a link between lakas (power) and ganda (beauty) of the inner self (loob). It is gracious goodness (ganda ng loob) or what is attractively humane, which gives direction to power (lakas).

Not only an individual but also a group or union of women and men can be a concentration of power that emits light. The revolutionary 19th cen. Katipunan group itself, which fought against the Spanish colonizers, has been imaged like the Christ of the Pasyon, as radiating with light that leads to liberation.[20]

1.2. Traditional Concepts of Power: A Critical Assessment

The traditional concepts of power and power accumulation we have discussed are important because they continue to shape the thinking of contemporary rural and urban poor Filipinos and their view of “sacred power” and their “possessors”. They continue to be manifested in popular religious practices today like in the practice of wiping saints with a kerchief as a way to absorb their power. The clergy/religious missionaries are still viewed by some as possessors of sacred power in an ontological if not a magical way.

Even accounts of the 1986 “People Power I” which toppled the twenty years Marcos dictatorship describe the event in terms of these notions of power. The saints, which served as talismans, assisted people power to triumph over military might.

These traditional concepts of power, however, can and have been used to reinforce hierarchy. For example, the notion that the amount of power in the universe is limited and only a few can accumulate power can justify patron-client relationships both in the Church and society at large. It reinforces the understanding of mission as uni-directional transfer of power from alleged centers of concentration – either from the Western to the local church; or from the clergy/religious missionaries to the laity; or from the Christian church to other religious groups. That power can be concentrated in certain things (e.g. saints, hosts) which its possessor may absorb also reinforce superstitious beliefs and over-reliance on amulets and talismans.

The link between power and the “beautiful loob” in the indigenous perspective, however, holds promise for a Philippine articulation of mission as mutual empowerment. Loob is basically a relational concept. As an inner quality, it cannot be separated from its outward manifestation, that is, from the way one relates with others. The quality of one’s loob (beautiful, good or bad) depends on how a person deals with others. This notion of power linked to loob is power-in-relation.

This power of graciousness or a “beautiful loob” was made manifest in the “People Power I”. Hearts of military men and passive citizens were touched by non-violent action combined with “attractive” goodness - women giving roses and sandwiches to military men, citizens volunteering their cars to block the tanks that are arriving, a supporter of Cory protecting a wounded Marcos loyalist from being hurt inside the Malacañang grounds. As Jose de Mesa notes: “what we have here is one collective memory in national consciousness which will continue to remind people of what is possible through generous self-giving and unity, i.e. graciousness toward others. It was undoubtedly a moment when graciousness reigned supreme.”[21]

Part 2: Towards Mission As Mutual Empowerment

First published in: The Mission to Proclaim and to Celebrate Christian Existence, ed. Peter de Mey, Jacques Haers and Jozef Lamberts (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), 20-35.

[1] “Indigenous” here refers to elements that are peculiar to pre-colonial Philippine culture but not necessarily unique to it. We are also not claiming that there can only be one reading of the “indigenous”.

[2] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1980), 142.

[3] Idem, Mikrophysik der Macht (Berlin 1976), cited by Wigand Sibel, “The Exercise of Power in Today’s Church,” Concilium vol 197 (1988), 40.

[4] Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 52.

[5] Ibid., 98.

[6] Foucault provisionally defines genealogy as union of “erudite knowledge” and “disqualified or popular knowledge” that highlights a historical knowledge of struggles which one can make use of tactically even today. It exposes the historical links between truth, knowledge and power. Ibid., 83.

[7] For a similar description of the relationship among contemporary Bicolanos (a Philippine ethnic group) today, see Fenella Cannell, Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (New York: Cambridge University, 1999), 230.

[8] Alicia Magos, The Enduring Ma-aram Tradition: An Ethnography of a Kinaray-a Village in Antique, (Quezon City: New Day, 1992), 47-50.

[9] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970), 44.

[10] Power encounters begin even with infants. The phenomenon of usug, still recognized by Filipinos today, is caused by an encounter with a stranger who has a stronger dungan. The child gets frightened and this leads to crying, vomiting and abdominal pains. It is believed that an infant who is always sick or crying has a dungan which is not yet at home in its corporeal dwelling. A series of rites has to be performed for the dungan to familiarize itself with its habitat.

[11] Reynaldo Clemeña Ileto. Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila, 1979), 235.

[12] Ibid., 89.

[13] Rafael, Contracting Colonialism, 108.

[14] For despite historical accounts of the phenomenal rate of conversion of the natives, the missionaries have constantly complained of the seemingly lack of understanding of Christianity and remnants of indigenous religions in people’s religious practices.

[15] Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” in Culture and Politics in Indonesia, ed. Claire Holt, Benedit R. O’G. Anderson and James Siegel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1972, 1-70.

[16] Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution, 25, 41.

[17] Ibid., 41.

[18] Ibid., 45.

[19] Ibid., 86, 180.

[20] Ibid., 37, 40.

[21] José de Mesa, “Providence as Power and Graciousness,” in Toward a Theology of People Power: Reflection on the Philippine February Phenomenon, ed. Douglas Elwood (Quezon City: New Day, 1988), 38.

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